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  • What are the Politics of Ahmed’s What is Islam?
  • Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins (bio)

Shahab Ahmed’s incredible What Is Islam will have its doubters and admirers, but one thing cannot be denied: the book’s wide-ranging philological analysis of texts and incredible interdisciplinary scope and geographic breadth showcased the talents of a once-in-a-generation scholar, one who died all too soon. But what does the book, and specifically its key notion of the Balkans-to-Bengal complex, amount to politically? To say it differently, what are the politics of the alternative hermeneutic that Ahmed proposes for interpreting the fecundity of Islam vis-à-vis the myriad approaches he criticizes for three hundred pages?

Let me try to tease out a few suggestions as to what this might entail by raising a few points about how Ahmed engages with history, political elitism, secularism, and anthropology in the book.

One of the rather curious features of What Is Islam is that it is a book devoid of a historical argument regarding its major claims. Ahmed’s book Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam to some extent shows the historical process by which law “came increasingly to assert its self-constituted authority to subsume Islamic discourse.”1 In What Is Islam? the historical argument for how this happened is never really fully articulated. The book does offer certain historical clues, yet they are not spelled out in detail. The Balkans-to-Bengal complex (1350–1850), the concept for which the book is most known, is described as a “post-formative stage and condition in the history of Muslim societies” (75). By post-formative he means what came after the classical period (700–1050), in which the foundational elements of Islam, in terms of theology, law, politics, and institutions, were basically settled, which, in turn, allowed in The Balkans-to-Bengal complex a “maniplex yet stable ingrediential base for a further striking forth in dynamic trajectories of being Muslim” (75).

Yet even during the classical period, he argues, Islamic law was certainly not as central to Muslims’ conceptualizations of Islam as it came to subsequently be (129). When did the Balkans-to-Bengal complex give way to a legal-supremacist conceptualization? Again, there is no way to analyze the historical argument, since this is not the aim of the book. The clearest answer seems to be given in chapter 2, where, in some rather convoluted language, Ahmed says that the “nation-state is a legal fiction: it is, literally, made up by law.” Modern [End Page 195] man, according to Ahmed, is Homo juridicus, and thus it is “hardly surprising that the leitmotif of Muslim modernism of every stripe is the assertion of the unilateral normative supremacy of something called shari’ah” (125). Hence it seems that an overconcentration on the law is due to the legacy of European colonialism, which reduced the question of what Islam is to a question of the modern Islamic state and its relationship to Islamic law.

In other words, Islam, on Ahmed’s reading, has been limited in the modern era of nationalism and nation-states to a mere political theology. To make this criticism, he would presumably argue, is not to deny the question of political theology but rather to place it within a larger complex of components that provide more hermeneutical depth for studying the richness of Islam. But again, what is missing in the book is a rigorous genealogical or historical account that explains the rise of the constitutive primacy of legal discourse in Islam, especially given the tendency in certain epochs; so the book might not be immune from the criticism of dualism, albeit historical dualism, that he is so quick to find in the writings of other approaches to the study of Islam.

Indeed, the Balkans-to-Bengal complex almost reads like some kind of golden age. But more importantly, I imagine that filling in the blanks of the historical argument might present a more compelling case to those who are not convinced by his claims concerning the noncentrality of law in Islam.

That one could see “golden age thinking” might be inseparable from the kind of political...